The Church of England has appointed its first web pastor to oversee a new parish that will exist only on the net.
Alyson Leslie, a lay pastor, will run i-Church, a community of worshippers from all over the world who will congregate at the website for prayers in chatrooms, webcast services and e-mail socialising.
Alyson Leslie, the net pastor
It is the first time a web community will be a fully recognised Anglican church. Although parishioners from many countries are taking part, the church will nominally be part of the Diocese of Oxford, which is funding the £15,000-a-year venture - a fraction of the cost of maintaining many physical churches.
Ms Leslie, whose appointment was announced at the Christian Resource Exhibition on Tuesday, said more than 700 people had already joined ahead of its proper launch in July.
"They're a wide range of people. Some are working abroad, some are in countries where they find it difficult to express a Christian faith openly, and some are in residential care and can't get about. Some are disaffected by the church and want to find new ways to belong."
The website would for some be their main church; others would take part only occasionally, she said. But her hope was that there would be a sense of belonging.
She said: "My experience of online communities is that they can be loving and generous and supportive."
The website is part of the Church of England's response to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams' call for a "mission-shaped" church.
The Rev Richard Thomas, spokesman for the Diocese of Oxford, said he hoped it would appeal to people who preferred modern ways of doing things, such as dealing directly with organisations over the web.
A separate online church, called Church of Fools, was also launched at the exhibition by the Christian website Ship of Fools and the Methodist Church.
Unlike i-Church, it has a virtual reality representation on screen, much like an online game.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, launched the Church of Fools by preaching on the potential for the web to be used for good.